Street vendors in Liberia are organizing themselves to gain rights and improve their working conditions. Helped by groups such as Realizing Rights, these informal workers are fighting hard for greater security and prosperity.
Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Realizing Rights with Street Vendors. Trade and Decent Work in Monrovia, Liberia.
WOMAN 1 [Street vendor]
I've been on the street selling for seven years to be able to send my children to school, to feed myself, and to take care of my family.
Realizing Rights has been active in Liberia since 2007 and, responding to their needs, started supporting workers in the informal economy. In November, 2009, Realizing Rights' staff visited Liberia's capital city of Monrovia to hear first-hand the concerns of street vendors and to give voice to those concerns at the highest levels of government. A decade of civil war sharply increased the number of Liberian households headed by women. Without skills and education, their best option is selling on the street surplus goods from their farms, local produce, or whatever they can round up. Men who are ex-combatants need a legal livelihood or risk a return to violence. Realizing Rights' staff interviewed informal traders about their progress in getting organized and improving their situation.
The market is very small, especially for Liberians who like to read. So, when you get one customer, everybody wants to sell. So you got to be a real tough businessman.
A tough business
THERESA [Shoe seller]
In the future, I want to get a store. I want to leave this sidewalk now because I ought not be on the sidewalk, police running behind me every day.
So we work with Monrovia City Corporation to attempt to resolve the crisis between the government and us, to lessen the tension a little bit, because there has been tension since '94 when street vendors started. Street vendors have been formed as an organization before, but this is the first time where the government has contributed support to help us form. Yet there is still tension between us and the government, but, gradually, we will find a solution to that.
Organizing to find solutions
COMFORT [Lace material vendor]
We don't want to be on the streets forever. We want relocation of site. And we want loans, to help our people, to improve their businesses so they can move from this level, the grassroots level, to another level. The police were really on our backs. They gave us chase and chase. There was no way for us to rest. We would run 24 hours around the clock. But now, we are not running. We are not running because of the association that has come along, and Realizing Rights, who are working really hard. So we all decided to form this organization to see how we can best move ourselves forward.
Organizing to move each other forward
In addition to the on-street interviews, president of Realizing Rights, Mary Robinson, visited the leaders of the Petit Traders Union. These pioneering women provided a deeper insight into the pressing needs of their organization's members and what challenges remained on their path to greater security and prosperity.
MARY ROBINSON [President, Realizing Rights]
And about how many members are there of the national petit traders association?
HELEN WALKER [Treasurer, Petit Traders Union]
The National Petit Traders Union has several thousand members.
So what are you hoping for now?
We are currently asking RR to help the organization [NEPETUL] with loans [credit] and to speak with the government to help us find an area for us to relocate to.
This morning, I went with my colleagues to speak to two of the women who are involved in this Petit Traders Union of Liberia. In one way or another, they were both indicating that it's very hard to compete.
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF [President, Republic of Liberia]
I think one of the missing links in the whole thing is the access to credit.
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF
By the Petit Traders.
That's what they said. The first thing that they kept coming back to was exactly what you've said: access to credit that lets them build, and also a space for the market.
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF
That is something where we can help them with, and we can certainly work with them through the Minister of Gender, through the Minister of Commerce, so I'll try to get more on that and see how we can be helpful.
Since this visit took place, Monrovia City Corporation has allocated to the street vendors a legal place to vend. Although more space is needed, this is an important first step. In addition, Realizing Rights has provided seed money to the Petit Traders Union for them to rent office space close to Monrovia City Corporation so that they can maintain a regular dialogue with the mayor's office. A partnership with the global network WICO [Women's International Coalition] and others will continue to provide more skills and decent work opportunities for this community.